Hexbyte – Tech News – Ars Technica | Groundbreaking maker of gentle factory robots shuts down

Hexbyte – Tech News – Ars Technica |

RIP Baxter —

Friendly Baxter faced strong competition from smaller, lighter rivals.

Hexbyte - Tech News - Ars Technica | Article intro image
Enlarge /

Baxter in 2014.

Back in 2014, we wrote about Baxter, an anthropomorphic factory robot that was gentle enough to work alongside human workers. We visited Baxter at a robotics trade show in New York, and it seemed like the company was getting a lot of interest from potential customers. Unfortunately, we learned last week that Rethink Robotics, the company behind Baxter, is shutting down.

Traditional factory robots are dangerous—they’re often put behind cages to avoid accidentally injuring human workers nearby. Baxter, by contrast, is designed to work directly alongside human workers. All of Baxter’s joints are designed not to pinch fingers. Its arms can “feel” if they encounter unexpected resistance (like a human body part) and stop. Company representatives liked to put their arms or heads in the path of the robot’s arms to show off this safety feature.

Traditional factory robots are also difficult to program. By contrast, almost anyone can learn how to teach Baxter a new task by grabbing its arms and guiding it through the desired steps.

The cost of traditional factory robots can easily run into the six figures. Baxter was initially priced at $22,000 in 2012 (the price rose a bit over time). Rethink Robotics also introduced a one-armed version of the Baxter, called Sawyer, that sold for $29,000.

Baxter seemed to have a bright future when it was unveiled in 2012. Rethink Robotics was cofounded by Rodney Brooks, who had previously cofounded iRobot, the maker of the popular Roomba robot vacuum cleaner.

Hexbyte – Tech News – Ars Technica | Baxter and Sawyer faced strong competition, weak demand

So what went wrong? Rethink Robotics suffered from lackluster sales, due in part to strong competition. A Danish rival called Universal Robots has emerged as a leader in the market for these “cobots”—robots capable of interacting safely with human workers. The company said earlier this year that it had sold more than 21,000 robots over its lifetime.

The robots offered by Universal Robots are similar to Baxter and Sawyer in a lot of ways—they’re easy to train and designed to stop gently if they come in contact with unexpected obstacles. But one significant difference is that th

Read More